Eli Tait was born in November 1872 in Metlakatla Canada, the son of Nis'awalp, John Tait (b.1843), one of Metlakatla's founders, and Margaret (Bolton) Tait (b.1848). John Tait was an important member of the early community, one of four who went to choose the site of New Metlakatla, and later one of three who went to Ottawa to formally petition for the land grant. He may also have been an early mayor of Metlakatla, and in 1903 was said to have been "one of the wisest and most devout men now living in Metlakahtla." Born to Laxsgiik, the Eagle phratry, John Tait's native names and affiliations were Yilmoks, Nismootk; Gispaxlo'ots, House of Nis'awalp; he held the chief name Nis'awalp; son of Wiipikeetin, Kitselas, and Timothy Tait (1806-1884). John Tait and Sidney Campbell were cousins. The native name of Eli's mother, Margaret Bolton Tait, was Luul, Gitlaan. John and Margaret were married on November 19, 1869. (house of John Tait)
By the age of eighteen Eli Tait had outlived three of his four brothers; at the age of 27 he married Cornelia Quinstead. Their first two children died at the ages of eight and ten, and the marriage ended sometime before 1910; details unknown; possibly Cornelia too had died. Tait later married Maud Stuart or Davis (born 1878 in Port Essington, BC; her first husband Charles Feak had died in 1908), who brought children from her prior marriage into the household. One of them, Edward Feak (1903-1981), was also a carver. Eli and Maud had two children, William and Ellen.
Eli worked as a night watchman on the fish traps, often taking his children William and Ellen along. He remained unmarried following Maud's death in a flu epidemic (probably the epidemic of 1918). His grand-daughter Phyllis Jackson remembers watching him carve the many small totem poles which he sold to the cruise ships for 50 cents apiece. She would run out to buy the Roi Tan cigars he favored, and would end up wearing the band on her finger as a ring.
Tait was crippled by arthritis in his joints, and used crutches as a result; Willie and Ellen would carry the poles to the docks when he was not up to it. Ellen took good care of her father; even as a child at the age of eight years she would pack water early in the morning before she went to school.
Eli was apparently rather quiet, not a sociable story-teller like Casper Mather. His descendants say he was a very gentle, kind man, who always had a bowl of candy or fruit in his room, where his carving was set up in a corner, pictured below. He had become a Jehovah's Witness, perhaps in part because of disapproval of Native ways in Duncan's church. He probably looked on his carving mostly as a source of income, but he may still have preserved some concern for its artistic merits; his grand-daughter Phyllis recalls hearing him say that he didn't approve of the use of varnish on his totems, and that Casper Mather used too much.
A visitor to Metlakatla in 1939 recorded the first known mention of the "good luck totem;" calling Eli Tait, "....the best totem-carver of all the Tsimpsians. He is crippled, but that does not hinder him in his work. We found him in his living room, which he uses for a work shop, carving a five-foot totem, at the bottom of which was the face of a young boy. It was to be a good luck totem. He told us the story about this boy..." (Alaska Life, October 1939) (The rest of the story has now been found).
Eli Tait died in his workshop in 1949, of an apparent heart attack. His great-grandson, Rick Booth, is a carver, and apparently looks much like him.
(Much of the above information is available only through the assistance of my friend Carol Torrey, a grand-daughter of Eli Tait; whose research, photographs, and advice have been invaluable.
I am also indebted to Eli Tait's grand-daughter Phyllis Jackson, and to Walter Jackson)
Additional genealogical material is available on the Tait family. Relatives and other interested persons should feel free to contact me.
By Tait's time, traditional Tsimshian art had been discouraged or banned, until it seemed small souvenir totems were all that remained; and these show little or no use of traditional forms.
However, the paddles in this picture do show some knowledge of traditional Northwest Coast forms, and appear to contain form lines, ovoids, u-forms. It appears that Tait had more knowledge of the traditional carving style than is commonly thought. Is it possible that Tait is the carver of the relatively common paddles often thought to be Tlingit? If not, where are Tait's paddles?